Edward Said

Ibn Warraq indicts the Palestinian author of Orientalism for presenting the West as villains and Muslims as victims

Edward Said, who died in September 2003, was professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, and the author of more than 20 books on cultural, literary, and political subjects. In many of them, such as The Question of Palestine, The Politics of Dispossession, and Peace and Its Discontents, he defended the Palestinian cause with passion and rage.

But by far his most influential work was Orientalism (1978), which gave birth to entire new disciplines, such as postcolonial studies. Universities round the world heaped honours on Said. One can see Said’s influence at work in all the humanities, almost negating centuries of Western scholarship.

Islamologists have long been aware of the disastrous effect of Said’s Orientalism on their discipline, which has resulted in a fear of asking and answering potentially embarrassing questions – ones that might upset Muslim sensibilities. Indeed, Said’s influence has made cross-cultural judgments well-nigh impossible.

Orientalism had the attraction of an all-purpose tool, which his eager acolytes could apply to every cultural phenomenon without having to think critically and without having to conduct any real archival research requiring mastery of languages, or research in the field requiring the mastery of technique and a rigorous methodology. It displays all the -laziness and arrogance of a man of letters who does not have much time for empirical research or, above all, for making sense of its results.

After the Second World War, left-wing intellectuals were consumed by guilt for the West’s colonial past and present. They wholeheartedly embraced any theory or ideology that seemed to voice the putatively thwarted aspirations of the peoples of the Third World. Orientalism came at a time when anti–Western rhetoric was at its most shrill. Jean-Paul -Sartre preached that all white men were complicit in the exploitation of the Third World. Said went further: “It is therefore correct that every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Not only, for Said, is every European a racist, but he must necessarily be so.

Western civilisation has, in fact, been more willing to criticise itself than any other.These self-administered admonishments are, however, a far cry from Said’s savage strictures. Yet they found a new generation ready to take them to heart. Blaming the West, a fashionable game in the 1960s and 1970s that impressionable youth took seriously, had the results we now see. The same generation -appears unwilling to defend its own civilisation against the greatest threat that it has faced since the Nazis.

Said’s influence was a result of a conjunction of several intellectual and political fashions: post-French Algeria and post-Vietnam Third-Worldism, the politicisation of post-modernist English departments that had abandoned the very idea of objective truth, and the influence of Michel Foucault. In effect, Said used each of these trends to create a master fraud, which bound American academics and Middle Eastern tyrants in unstated bonds of anti-American complicity.

Said accuses the academic discipline of orientalism of perpetuating negative racial stereotypes, anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudice, and the myth of an unchanging, essential “Orient”. He misrepresents distinguished scholars such as Richard Southern and Raymond Schwab. But he also accuses orientalists as a group of complicity with imperial power. The orientalists are said to have created the “Other” – the non-European always characterised in a negative way as passive, weak, in need of civilising by the more advanced West.

But there is a contradiction in Said’s major thesis. If orientalists have produced a false picture of the Orient, Orientals, Islam, Arabs and Arabic society, then how could this -pseudo-knowledge have helped European imperialists to dominate three-quarters of the globe? If imperialism was based on “information and control”, how could false information enable the West to control the Orient?

To argue his case, Said conveniently leaves out the important contribution of German orientalists. Their inclusion would destroy the central thesis of Orientalism: that all orientalists produced knowledge, which generated power, and that they colluded with imperialists to dominate the Orient. During the age of imperialism, Germans were the greatest of all scholars of the Orient, but Germany was never an imperial power in North Africa or the Middle East.

The most pernicious legacy of Said’s Orientalism is its cult of Muslim victimhood, which lent implicit support to Islamic fundamentalism – even though Said’s background was Christian. As Nadim Al-Bitar, an Arab critic, has said, for Said “all the ills [of the Arab world] emanate from orientalism and have nothing to do with the socio-economic, political and ideological makeup of the Arab lands or with the cultural and historical backwardness which stands behind it.”

Edward Said has much to answer for.

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